All posts by Andrew

Oliver 3.5

Oliver is nearly half way through his fourth year. As such, he is changing even more rapidly than his siblings. This post is a summary of things we have observed recently.

  • He talks. A lot. A tsunami of words at all times, often preceded with, “Hey Mama!” or “Hey Daddy!”
  • He likes to tell stories that meander from place to place with very little rhyme or reason.
  • He says “last night” to mean anytime in the past. For example, when referring to a trip we took in December, he might say, “Last night when we were at Grummy and Grandpa’s house.”
  • He prefaces many sentences with “I think so.” For example:
    • “I think so, Mama’s at the store.”
    • “I think so, tomorrow is a school day.”
    • “I think so, we need to buy some more bananas ‘cuz I like bananas.”
    • “I think so, we need to buy a new house because we have a hole in the wall.”
  • He regularly comes up with linguistic gems that we imagine we’ll remember, but then can’t quite reconstruct. I recall one from this morning when I think he was trying to describe something evaporating: “Maybe it just winded away…”
  • He loves it when we set timers. Before bed, he will often ask for a timer so that he can have “five more minutes!” to play. Usually, when the timer goes off he is happy to go upstairs.
  • He has ups and downs with emotional regulation. Sometimes he is easygoing and chill with changes of plan. At other times, he is stubborn and gets wildly upset over minor things: “But I wanted to put my toothbrush away MYSELF!!!!”
  • He loves to help in the kitchen and is getting better at it. He can often pour things into mixing bowls, stir things, count things out, or chop vegetables with his special chopper.
  • He is entirely potty trained except when he isn’t. We have trouble understanding what the key factors are. Sometimes he has no trouble for many days in a row. At other times, he’s on his third pair of pants before lunch. He can’t quite clamber up on the big potty yet, but loves to use his little one.
  • He still naps for 1-2 hours in the afternoon. Naptime and bedtime routines are straightforward: read a few books (or chapters from longer books) and then say goodnight. He often asks me to stay for “a little bit.”

Some additions from Griffin and Maggie:

  • He’s really annoying.
  • Maggie: He hits, kicks, and pinches a lot for no reason. (Griffin adds, “Actually, for a reason, because you do it.”)
  • Maggie: “This morning, Oliver was kicking me on the bed while I was doing HouseParty. I didn’t do anything!”
  • He interrupts a lot, saying, “But I’m talking!”
  • He’s a DUPLO master and is pretty good with regular legos too.
  • The Mandalorian was too scary for him. She-Ra is just right.
  • He often doesn’t finish his food and says that he wants us to “save it for tomorrow” but then never eats it.
  • He always wants to play with you in the least convenient times.
  • He always touches the screen when me and Griffin are playing on our iPads.
Oliver chopping rhubarb for rhubarb-vanilla jam.

RPGs during COVID-19

My hobby, as anyone looking at this blog likely knows, is playing roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons and GURPS. A game, however, usually involves a few hours of face-to-face time around a table with far less than six feet of separation between people.

Our last face-to-face game at the cabin on March 14 (on the cusp of Minnesota’s social distancing order).

After social distancing, most gaming has moved online. Last summer I tried using MapTool with some of my former players in California. It was ok, but required software installation and had some confusing elements. The lack of video chat made us all feel somewhat distant from each other.

After COVID struck, I decided to try Roll20, which is one of the most popular current platforms. A major advantage is that it is browser-based, so nobody has to install software or manage port forwarding. We found the built-in A/V to be buggy, so we switched to Zoom for video chat.

Here’s what it looked like at our most recent game:

Roll20 screenshot from our last session. Managing all of the graphical assets requires quite a bit of prep work, but it can create a fairly immersive visual experience.
We manage A/V through Zoom on a second window (or screen, for some).

We’ve all found it to be acceptable but not nearly as much fun as getting together in person.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to try another type of socially-distanced gaming. Some good friends of ours who live a few blocks away have been wanting to learn how to play a roleplaying game for some time. They asked me if I would be willing to run a family game for them, along with Griffin and Maggie. Just as we were discussing a date to get together, the social lockdown began. We had an initial video chat to discuss how to build characters, but it felt like running an actual game on Roll20 would be difficult. So we improvised. Griffin, Maggie, and I set up on the front porch of our neighbor’s house. Our friends sat in their living room, with more than six feet of separation. It worked, though the guy who mowed his lawn across the street might have the loudest lawnmower I’ve ever heard.

View of our first in-person but socially distanced game on May 16. I was GMing from the porch with Maggie and Griffin.

The game featured the following motley crew:

  • Alora — Gnome Bard (Isa)
  • HeathStar — Human Scout (Adam)
  • Iris — Elf Druid (Satya)
  • Melia — Faerie Dragon Wizard (Maggie)
  • Meow Meow — Cat-Folk Martial Artist (Megan)
  • Sir Yvor Gryffyn — Human Knight (Griffin)

I’m not sure how things will unfold in the coming months. The porch worked well enough that I think we’ll stick with that idea for the family game. It only makes sense, though, for two households. My main group consists of seven separate households, so I can’t think of a configuration that works in-person. We’ll probably stick with Roll20 until social distance rules are further relaxed.

Strawberry-Swirl Bundt Cake

The kids have been upgrading their cooking skills during the social isolation of COVID-19. Every week they produce a number of new recipes, almost invariably delicious. They focus primarily on baked goods—muffins, cupcakes, and full cakes—but they have also delved into savory options (the family potsticker assembly line involves all five of us).

This week, Griffin and Maggie looked through the May issue of Martha Stewart Living and cut out a number of recipes that they wanted to try. Yesterday, they chose this cake because we had all of the ingredients on hand. (We are trying to shop for groceries only once per week, which sometimes constrains our spontaneous cooking options.) We’re so glad they chose this one! It was delicious. Although they just baked it yesterday, there is only a little bit left, and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone wolfs it down before I finish writing this post.

The recipe is available online, but I’m including it here in case it vanishes (or lands behind a paywall) at some point in the future.


Ingredients

3 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for pan
3 1/2 cups cake flour (not self-rising), whisked, plus more for pan
2/3 cup egg whites (from 5 to 6 large eggs)
3/4 cup whole milk
2 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 3/4 teaspoons plus a pinch of kosher salt
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 3/4 cups plus 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
4 tablespoons ground freeze-dried strawberries (1/2 ounce)
2 drops pink gel-paste food coloring
1 quart fresh strawberries, hulled and sliced (2 1/2 cups)
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar, plus more for dusting

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F, with a rack in center. Brush a 10–to–15-cup Bundt pan with butter; dust with flour, tapping out excess. Whisk together egg whites, milk, and vanilla. Beat butter with 1 3/4 teaspoons salt, baking powder, and 1 3/4 cups granulated sugar on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes.
  2. Beat in flour in three additions, alternating with egg-white mixture, and beginning and ending with flour. (You should have about 7 cups batter.) Separate 2 cups batter and stir in freeze-dried strawberries.
  3. Transfer 1/4 cup strawberry batter to a small bowl; stir in pink gel paste until combined. Stir mixture back into remaining strawberry batter a little at a time, until you achieve desired color.
  4. Spoon 2 1/2 cups vanilla batter into bottom of pan. Top with all of strawberry batter, then remaining vanilla. Run a butter knife through batter four times to swirl, then use to fold and swoop in a couple of places to further marble.
  5. Place pan in oven; reduce temperature to 325°F. Bake until top of cake springs back when lightly touched, 1 hour to 1 hour and 5 minutes. Let cool in pan on a wire rack 15 minutes, then turn out onto rack and let cool completely.
  6. Stir together strawberries, remaining 3 tablespoons granulated sugar, and a pinch of salt; let stand until sugar dissolves, about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, beat cream with confectioners’ sugar on high speed to soft peaks. Dust cake with more confectioners’ sugar and serve with whipped cream and macerated berries.

Distance Teaching

I’m starting my second week of distance teaching today. Not loving it thus far. Admittedly, there are some neat aspects to it. I thought I would dislike having to record all of my class meetings, but it’s actually pretty convenient. If I’m having a one-on-one discussion with a student during our “quiet study” period, I can share the video with them afterward so that they don’t have to worry about taking notes. Similarly, if a student misses a class meeting, the video of the class will be posted within about 15 minutes… so that can be useful.

But, and this is huge, the connections with students are so much weaker. I see all their tiny faces on my meeting grid, but I can’t really tell if they are with me or snoozing or confused. Normally I can walk around the room and read everyone’s body language. If the energy is sleepy, I rev things up or insert a quick oxygen break. If students seem confused, I slow down and go over things more carefully. All of this is much harder when mediated by a video conferencing app. Even doing a “whip share” where everybody shares something feels slower and less dynamic on the computer. I find myself losing focus before we make it around the circle (and when I’m zoning out, I know that most of the class is long gone!).

I’m confident that I’ll get better at this as I gain more experience. I hope to solicit plenty of feedback from my students, too, about what’s working for them. I haven’t been at it long enough to see how the quality of student work changes. I’m curious about that.

Below are two artifacts from my first week. First is the Welcome Back video that I sent to my eighth-grade social studies students before our first class. It took me forever to make and I have a million criticisms, but it’s safe to say that it was the best I could do in the time that I had. The second is a cartoon created by my good friend Nate. He’s a teacher on the east coast and used to draw illustrations of our high school D&D adventures.  In my classes so far, I’ve seen all of his archetypes except the skateboarder.

New Hair

Maggie’s been asking about dying her hair for a long time. Sarah tried dying it at home last summer, but it washed out after the first trip to the pool. So we finally made a professional appointment. The choice of color was suspenseful. Last week she wanted it to be bright red. This morning, she was leaning toward “greenish blue.” The stylist convinced her that purple would work best with her natural color. 

Widjiwagan 2020

For the first time since 2011, I was able to go to Camp Widjiwagan this year as a chaperone for the week-long seventh grade trip. It was glorious to be back up north in the heart of winter.

The overall experience was similar to my first trip (as described in this post). I still enjoy cross-country skiing, but haven’t improved much in nine years; I still have a hard time managing downhill slopes where I pick up too much speed, panic, and crash. The sauna-dip experience involved much less trepidation, since I remembered it fondly from the first trip. It was just as good this time. For bedtime readings, I warmed my cabin up on Monday evening with one of my favorite creepy stories, H.P. Lovecraft’s The Cats of Ulthar. The next night, the students requested more, so we dove into The Call of Cthulhu for the remaining nights, wrapping up on Thursday with a few brave students managing to stay awake for the ending.

A personal highlight, as mentioned in my previous post, was our Wednesday DFRPG game with Sam doing a masterful job in the GM’s chair. It was the closest my beloved character, Zafir Abrashi, has come to dying, being nearly digested by a giant carnivorous plant!

I didn’t take many pictures, but the selection below provides a sense of things. (All of the following are my photos except for the chaperone group which was taken by Molly McMahon.)

Update: My colleague, Cheryl Wilgren, shared some additional shots from the trip: